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Vaibhav Verma and Manish Malhotra March 01 , 2015
There is a strong connection between what we eat and our health. A better understanding of the same would lead to the development of an alternate mode of healthcare through diet regulation - such as use of functional food or medical food etc. This trend is now fast emerging, particularly in the developed countries. People are now familiar with a variety of molecular and chemical terms in food and nutrition and the concept of personal health care.

Functional food is any substance that may be considered a food or a part of a food and provides medical or health benefits, including the prevention and treatment of disease. Such products may range from isolated nutrients, dietary, supplements and diets to genetically engineered ‘designer’ foods, herbal products, and processed foods such as cereals, soups, and beverages.

Recent knowledge supports the hypothesis that, beyond meeting nutrition needs, diet may modulate various functions in the body and play detrimental or beneficial roles in some diseases. Concepts in nutrition are expanding from emphasis on survival, hunger satisfaction, and preventing adverse effects to emphasising the use of foods to promote a state of well-being and better health and help reduce the risk of disease.

In many countries, especially Japan and the United States, research on functional foods is addressing the physiologic effects and health benefits of foods and food components, with the aim of authorising specific health claims. The positive effects of a functional food can be either maintaining a state of well-being and health or reducing the risk of pathologic consequences. Among the most promising targets for functional food science are gastrointestinal functions, redox and antioxidant systems, and metabolism of macronutrients.

People today are more nutrition-savvy than ever before, their interest in health-related food information being met by many courses of information. Functional foods are found virtually in all food categories, however, products are not homogeneously scattered over all segments of the growing market. The development and commerce of these products is rather complex, expensive and risky, as special requirements should be answered. Besides potential technological obstacles, legislative aspects, as well as consumer demands need to be taken into consideration when developing functional food. In particular, consumer acceptance has been recognised as a key factor to successfully negotiate market opportunities.

Nutritional challenges
UNICEF (2009) data shows infant mortality to be declining steadily, but is still 1,72,6000 deaths for children below the age of 5 against 26,78,7000 thousand births. Some 40% of children below the age of 5 are under weight.

Despite the country's growing economy and an ambitious rural health initiative, over 100,000 women die from pregnancy-related causes each year – highest in the world.

In light of the above scenario it is important that natural Indian foods with added health benefits along with fortified and other modified functional foods with potential health benefits are promoted.        

Natural functional foods
Garlic has a compound known by the name of Allicin, which gives medicinal properties to this wonder herb. It strengthens the natural defence and improves the immune system which helps in prevention of cancer, heart disease and hypertension and decreases platelet aggregation. Ginger contains at least 12 anti-ageing constituents that inactivate free radicals and reduce inflammation, it is also a good source of dietary fibre. Green tea contains antioxidant which helps in prevention of cancers. Fenugreek has very powerful anti-inflammatory and antioxidant properties which help in controlling cardiovascular disease, blood glucose and cholesterol levels. Millets and whole grains are rich in fibres and are good in the prevention of certain cancers, heart disease and are a body cleanser; oats are rich in a cholesterol lowering soluble fibre called beta-glucan.

Tamarind is consumed in one form or the other by the people all over India. In south India, tamarind is used throughout the year in the form of various preparations like Curry, Sambhar, Rasam, and Chutney. In north India, especially in summer, tamarind water blended with jeera or other spices is taken as golguppa or as chutney. Raw mango drinks, barley water with lemon or tamarind or black carrot preparations in the form of cold drinks are also widely used in summer. Many of us, perhaps, are not aware of the health protective role played by these foodstuffs in summer. Scientific investigations have shown that tamarind and raw mango contain some proteins and glycolipids that bind with fluoride and thus protect us from fluoride poisoning.

Omega-3 fatty acids
It is good for prevention of coronary artery disease, as it helps in increasing the HDL (good cholesterol) in the blood; decreases triglyceride levels, and slows down the development of atherosclerotic plaque.

American Heart Association recommends 100 gram of fish at least twice a week. Fatty fish like salmon, mackerel, herring, lake trout, sardines and tuna. For vegetarians a good source of Omega-3 fatty acid is flax seeds.

Phytochemicals
Fruits and Vegetables: Rich in polyphenols, vitamins and fibre. Prevention of cancers, hypertension and heart disease.  

Broccoli and other Cruciferous Vegetables are associated with decreased cancer risk. Tomatoes are good in lycopene, which is a potent antioxidant.

Lycopene helps in strengthening the immune system and has disease fighting ability. Cooking of tomatoes in curries, soups or ketchup liberates this component even more making it more effective. Citrus fruits are  also protective against a variety of human cancers.

Probiotics & Antioxidants
Milk, cheese, yogurt are rich in calcium. Addition of probiotics is good for the prevention of certain cancers, and they are anti-inflammatory and help in prevention of gastrointestinal disorders, boost immunity and are good for digestive health.

Antioxidants
Cocoa - called the super food. Cocoa is a rich source of antioxidants known as polyphenols and flavonoids, which are anti-ageing and protect from heart disease.

Polyphenols
Red wine has antioxidants and Resveratrol which helps in minimising certain cancers.  It also prevents many degenerative disorders especially of the brain.  Wine in moderation can lower the risk of above disorders and is anti-ageing. Purple grapes contain polyphenolic compounds that support normal healthy cardiovascular function.

Organic foods
Conventional foods are likely to have lethal pesticides, chemicals, additives and possible allergens. Hence there is significant growth in organic foods.  General perception of a healthier lifestyle  is to include organic products, as they can reduce the development of respiratory illnesses, allergies, gastrointestinal disorders, degenerative diseases including some cancers. Despite low level of public awareness compared to Western markets, functional foods and ingredients are finding growth in areas of India, as consumers switch on to the promise of healthier foods and supplements. The likes of Probiotic-fortified yoghurt, buttermilk, Omega-3-fortified health drinks and baby foods are winning over swathes of Indian consumers, especially those in the large conurbations such as Mumbai and New Delhi.

Functional food industry is progressing worldwide. Nevertheless, thriving commercialisation of functional food products will be a challenge. The foremost underlying factor is how consumers identify functional foods and what issues influence an affirmative attitude in their buying decision. Consuming less fat and eating more vegetables and fruits has increasingly become the food habit of the respondents owing to lifestyle changes. However, availability and expense to purchase functional food affect the decision to pay and the decision of how much to pay.

Functional foods in the Indian market
Presently there are few commercialised functional products in the Indian market. With India’s strong tradition of consuming natural healthy foods, the market of functional foods is likely to double in the next five years. The highest growth is likely to be in sub-categories such as energy drinks, enhanced shelf-stable juices, probiotic, and Omega fortified foods and beverages. These foods and beverages, personalised to manage certain health conditions are the future of the functional health foods market.

For the success of functional foods, the right strategy would be partnerships amongst functional food or beverage manufacturers, pharmaceutical companies, nutrition companies, and food additives companies in the formulation of the product healthy, flavours, palatable, affordable.

Challenges faced by functional food industry
  • To generate scientific knowledge of foods
  • Provide evidence of physiological effects
  • Implement these in functional food products
  • Taste, flavour, shelf life, cost, availability
Network with government agencies, medical fraternity, manufacturing companies, biotechnology experts, food technology, nutritional science experts and agricultural industry.

The success would eventually depend upon the smoothness in execution of the task and innovative brilliance of all players in their respective fields.

For a successful business, USP of the functional food should be very specific and should cater to the clearly defined consumer segment. If the USP of the product does not fulfil the specific needs of the consumer, then the consumer would not prefer to spend higher and would switch back to the traditional form. Moreover, Indian consumers are currently not clear about their status as food supplements or pharmaceuticals. Also due to regulatory frameworks, labelling and marketing of functional foods further creates confusion among the Indian consumers. Hence, the acceptance of functional foods in the Indian scenario is not as high as in the Western countries.

Currently, there is no direct form of competition in case of specific functional foods as there are a very few players in this category. But in case a functional food has no clear differentiation from the traditional food form, competition from the latter would be severe. Even if a functional food has very specific attributes but it does not serve a clearly defined segment, chances of competition from the makers of traditional food forms are high. Hence, the launch and marketing along with awareness regarding the specific attributes of the functional food would play a very crucial role in the success or failure of a new entrant.

The strategy for success of functional food will be one where functional beverage manufacturers, pharmaceutical companies, nutrition companies, and food additives companies cooperate amongst themselves and come up with a concept/product that is healthy, offers great flavours, and which is palatable as well as affordable.

Ongoing research into functional foods will allow the establishment of health claims that can be translated into messages for consumers that will refer to either enhanced function or reduction of disease risk. Only a rigorous scientific approach that produces highly significant results will guarantee the success of this new discipline of nutrition. This presents a challenge for the scientific community, health authorities, and the food industry.

Young Indian consumers getting higher incomes are spending more on healthy foods and India is expected to become the fifth largest consumer market in the world by 2025 from being the 12th largest currently and statistics show that beverages and dairy will drive this growth of functional foods in India.

(The authors are asst professors at Banarsidas Chandiwala Institute of Hotel Management & Catering Technology)

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